Through the black mirror: How DVA turned technological terror into a career-best album

On his second full-length, Hyperdub stalwart Scratcha DVA steps into his [Hi:Emotions] costume to offer a gripping meditation on humankind’s embrace of machines and the fluidity of identity in the digital age. Laurent Fintoni talks to the former grime and UK funky producer about falling in love with your computer and the project’s ambitious live performance plans.

Who are you? Do you consider the digital extension of yourself – spread out across browser cookies, site profiles, emails, images — to be part of the ‘real’ you? Do you have online identities no one knows about, reflections created and discarded at the touch of a button? All of these questions have been weighing on Leon Smart, the producer and DJ known as Scratcha DVA, or simply DVA.

“You are you, you are here right now – but when you get on your computer you could be anyone,” he states with characteristic enthusiasm. We’re sitting outdoors in Greenpoint on a hot June afternoon. Smart had flown into New York City the day before, on the eve of Britain’s ill-fated EU referendum, to begin a three-week North American tour. At the same time, his longtime label home Hyperdub announced a new album, NOTU_URONLINEU, to be released on October 7 under the alias DVA Hi:Emotions. When we meet, Smart is still putting the finishing touches to the project – the artwork, the live show — but he’s excited. NOTU_URONLINEU marks a creative leap for the veteran club producer, a sonic meditation on virtual identity and the fluidity of existence that’s aimed at the mind rather than the body.

Smart is a dynamic guy. When he talks he gestures for emphasis; you get the feeling that his mouth sometimes struggles to keep up with the pace of his thoughts. It’s as if hidden inside his compact frame is a never-ending supply of energy, no matter the subject or mood. This dynamism is part of his charm but, as he admits in frustration, it can also obscure his complexity and range. Since entering the London music scene in 2002, in the wake of an underground shift from jungle and drum and bass into garage, Smart has accumulated many misperceptions about who he is, or who he could be, as an artist.

After working in the grime world, including producing for Wiley and engineering for various MCs, he struggled to shake off his association with a genre he still liked but was no longer excited about. He rode the UK funky wave around 2010 with a crop of 12”s on Hyperdub, including a collaboration with Eglo singer Fatima, but again wasn’t comfortable staying in the same box for long. In 2012 he ended a six-year stretch as a breakfast show host on Rinse FM and released his debut album for Hyperdub, Pretty Ugly. The album featured a range of vocalists, which seemed to come as a surprise to some listeners, even though Smart had released the first grime album to feature only singers six years before.

“Perception is crazy, especially in our music,” he notes. “I did the Grimey Breakfast show for a while, busted a lot of jokes, played a lot of different music. But now I wanna release some seriously deep music.” His artistic development is a constant negotiation; the question he’s asking himself now is, ‘Am I allowed? Is this me as well?’

NOTU_URONLINEU originates in the visual world. A few years back, Smart went through a period of obsessing over the mechanics of filmmaking just as he’d become fascinated with music when he was younger. “I thought I could have a go at it. I wrote a couple of shorts and the second was a whole visual idea. I wanted to make the music for it and that’s where this sound came from. It started visually.”

“The joke used to be robots taking over. This is not a fucking joke anymore”

The short film he had begun writing was a love story between a human and a robot, the latter a personal computer. It was, by his own admission, “nothing that hadn’t been done before.” But as someone who spends the majority of my time attached to a computer, the idea gave me pause for thought. “If anyone knows you, it’s your laptop,” Smart suggests, proving his point by asking me how long I’ve owned mine. “It knows some shit about you, probably more than your partner.”

Starting from our relationship with technology, Smart wanted to explore our ongoing embrace of machines, an evolutionary dance we’re always engaged in but not always aware of, much less in control of. “Your computer will be able to be you when you ain’t there,” he predicts. His fear reminds me of ‘Be Right Back’, an episode from Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi series Black Mirror in which dead people are reanimated through the digital breadcrumbs they left behind. “The joke used to be robots taking over. This is not a fucking joke anymore.”

But Smart is also excited about the future, particularly the new leaps being made in virtual reality technology and how our identities are becoming more malleable. As a kid, he would watch the BBC science and technology show Tomorrow’s World with his mum, watching stories about a future where travel wouldn’t involve physical movement, where people would talk to each other over video screens. In some shape or form, many of the high-tech predictions of the 1980s came to pass – and when they did, we often thought nothing of it, he points out. “So I’m thinking, what’s it gonna be like in the same amount of time from now?” NOTU_URONLINEU reflects on the question and its possible answers.

Armed with a new drum machine and a new range of sounds, Smart locked himself up in his studio for almost a year, writing music in the dark with just the glow of his computer screen and machines to guide his movement. One early idea was to recreate the increasing bleed of the virtual world into meatspace by writing music “with a live jazz feel that crosses over into a digital space.”

The result was the album’s title track, which then became a jumping off point for the rest. An eight-minute shell of bleeps and noises, the spiky ‘NOTU_URONLINEU’ smooths out halfway through when a Rhodes solo, played by Danalogue, appears out of nowhere before turning back into a prickly mass. Where most would hear a jarring clash, Smart was searching for hidden complementary elements. The rest of album explores this space across 12 tracks of ill-defined rhythms, abstract melodies, and layered samples broken up by flashes of humanity.

“I’ve realized I like to find the soul in dark music,” Smart later told me over email, a couple months after our meeting. “I’m not sure if there’s any [such] thing as soulless music. I like hearing harmonies rising from a mono tone. It feels like sunrise, or walking down a long dark tunnel and seeing the light. I like when I get that feeling in music, so I try to create it a lot.”

To help differentiate this sonic departure from his existing work, Smart decided to attach to it a name he’d first began using in 2010 for remix work. DVA’s Hi:Emotions was intended as an embodiment of the heightened sensations you might feel when you’re smoking weed, as guilt and paranoia begin to dart around your brain. “Most of the time those remixes had a deeper side to them,” he says. As he finished the new album, Smart felt he’d achieved a similar depth. And so it became “a Hi:Emotions thing. It’s not a dance record. I’ve always played with different things, one doesn’t mean you can’t do the other. This album makes it clear.”

Once he’d written the music for visuals in his head, Smart decided to try and create those too. In the context of the album, Hi:Emotions isn’t just a name but also an all-powerful mega-brand from the not-too-distant future. The album includes a handful of short commercials for the Hi:Emotions core product, a headset that can be used to add emotional context to written communication, bring musical ideas to life without the need for physical labor, or allow your dreams to be streamed to others, earning you money as you sleep. These audio ads have been turned into videos ahead of the album, slick visual riffs on Apple-style propaganda. The Hi:Emotions slogan, ‘one brand, one life’, leaves the consumer free to connect the dots.

The album is not made to be presented in the usual DJ-friendly format; it will only exist on record and in a live setting, in a context he can control. Because Smart wrote the album in the dark — emulating youthful experiences of listening to the radio after his mum had sent him to bed — he wants the audience to experience it that way too. Doing so is intense but rewarding; the details reveal themselves in the absence of distractions as you let yourself float in a digital expanse, latching onto small anchors of humanity as they drift pass. Smart is also collaborating with Filip Rocca, a visual artist specialising in video mapping whom he met in Belgrade last winter. “The visuals are created using real time audio responsive generative software,” Rocca explains in an email. “They’re divided into two groups, one set of simple geometric, technical compositions and one set of 3D, human-like scenes.”

The result is intended to represent a “techno-human fusion piece” which expands the album’s themes of our ongoing union with machines. “I need it to be heard how it was made,” adds Smart. “People will listen to it where and how they want, but when you hear it from me it’ll be the way I want it.”

The desire to control how the audience experiences the album reflects Smart’s desire for his music to be taken seriously. His preoccupation with identity and technology is more than just a cool concept to peg the new record on – it’s something that weighs on his mind. Conceptual albums always run the risk of obfuscating what might be considered the primary appeal of music — that it should be accessible without knowledge of its context.

In that sense, Hyperdub is a fitting home for the record and for Smart; the label has often brought artists on board on the strength of their club-focused work and then given them space to experiment over longer formats. “When I hear someone’s album I want to hear something about them,” Smart says. “I want a story or I want to learn something about the artist.” As Hi:Emotions he gives us the chance meet a DVA we’ve known all along without realising it. He was hidden behind the name: DVA is short for Diverse Arts.

Laurent Fintoni is on Twitter

DVA will debut his new live show as DVA [Hi:Emotions] at The Pickle Factory on November 17 with support from VR designer Matteo Zamagni.